Thy History of Caroling

May 14, 2009
Caroling is a tradition that happens during every season of Christmas; where people sing from door-to-door, bringing the Christmas spirit along with them. However, this cheerful tradition has not always been practiced the way it is done today.

In the past, caroling was associated with the term, “wassailing”. In the Anglo-Saxon era, wassailing was an activity of Pagan ritual. This ritual was performed to ensure a good harvest, by awaking cider apple trees and scaring away evil spirits:
“Here’s to thee, old apple tree, That blooms well, bears well. Hats full, caps full, Three bushel bags full, An’ all under one tree. Hurrah! Hurrah!” (Transmutations blog by Robert Minimus: Pagan History of Wassailing (Caroling)) Then, to finish the ritual, they would sing, shout, and bang drums/pots & pans as loud as they could. As a matter of fact, this last step is where we get our tradition of “making noise” on New Year’s Day to welcome the new year.

Wassailing was also found in the Middle Ages in a medieval tradition of charity. This “charity” was a reciprocal exchange between feudal lords and their peasants. The peasants would come to their lords singing the song “Here We Come A-Wassailing”, which informed their lords that “we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door but we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before”, (Transmutations blog by Robert Minimus: Pagan History of Wassailing (Caroling)) and the lord of the manor would give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill; responding, “Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too; And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year…” (Transmutations blog by Robert Minimus: Pagan History of Wassailing (Caroling))

In the early times of New England, wassailing was also found but not in a pleasant way. In these times, wassailing was associated with raucous bands of young men who would enter the homes of wealthy neighbors and demand free food and drink in a trick-or-treat fashion. If the householder refused, he was usually cursed, and occasionally his house was vandalized.

The example of the exchange is seen in their demand for “figgy pudding” and “good cheer”, i.e. the wassail beverage, without which the wassailers in the song will not leave, “we won’t go until we get some.” Yep, the song, “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”, comes from these raucous wassailers.

In cider-producing areas of England, such as the West Country, wassailing was referred to drinking and singing to the health of trees in the hope that the trees will thrive: “Wassail the trees, that they may bear / You many a Plum and many a Pear: / For more or less fruits they will bring, / As you do giving them Wassailing.” (Transmutations blog by Robert Minimus: Pagan History of Wassailing (Caroling))

The derivation of the word wassail, “carol”, has been the subject of much speculation. Most speculators believe it goes back through the old French “caroler” and the Latin “choraula” to the Greek “choros” which was a circling dance often accompanied by singing and associated with dramatic performances, religious festivals, and fertility rites. The carol of classical times was a major element in popular celebrations to mark the passing of the winter solstice and the promise of spring. Including, it was among the many pagan customs taken over by the medieval church, which used them equally in the celebration of Easter/vernal equinox and Christmas/winter solstice. The church long anguished over the performance of such popular song-dances and the “caraula” was explicitly banned in the 7th century at the Council of Chalon-sur-Saone. The carols, themselves, were later banned in 1209 at the Council of Avignon and condemned at the Council of Basle in 1435.

The carol was found in English literature too. The earliest known reference of a literary carol goes back to the year of 1300 and it simply denotes to a round dance with no religious connotations. The biggest period for the English carol was from 1440 to 1550. Born of late, medieval Humanism carols were smothered in England by Puritan zealots after the sixteen century Reformation. However, the carols were partly reinstated at the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 when Charles II ascended the throne. Later, carols were rediscovered and reinvented by Victorian antiquarians. Including, the English carol was found and influenced by a popular fiction writer named Charles Dickens, who wrote the famous “A Christmas Carol” in 1843.

Sooner or later, the carols came to our modern times and were reinvented again in a bigger artistic area of both music and literature. Even though carols have been changed many times over the years, the history behind it still thrives in both words and tradition.





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